Catalogs. Have you used these publications for your family history research? While we may think of “old” catalogs as those from the later 19th or early 20th centuries, the history of retail catalogs extends ever farther back. Publishing company Publitas writes that the year 1498 saw the first catalog published in Venice, Italy for The Aldine Press. Catalogs for seed companies began in the 17th century when English gardener William Lucas published one with seed prices. It’s not until the later 19th century that we see catalogs for companies like Montgomery Ward (1872) and Sears (1894).
Catalogs provide a unique glimpse into our ancestor’s lives. They not only help us understand what was available to them but they may help us answer questions such as the approximate year a photograph was taken according to when the clothing and jewelry were available, the history behind an heirloom, or help us identify an object. I’ve used catalogs to search for the name of a specific vintage kitchen tool, identify when a serving dish was available, and explore fraternal order jewelry as well as to answer questions about beauty products our ancestors used.
Where can you find older catalogs? One place to search is Internet Archive. Their Catalogs collection includes over 16,000 catalogs.
A Few Examples
For those of us in the United States, when we think of catalogs, we think of the Sears catalog. Internet Archive has a collection of Sears catalogs (though not all) and you can find everything from the general catalog, to speciality catalogs focusing on wallpaper, tools, homes and farm buildings, stoves from 1904 and my favorite, Tombstones and Monuments (1902 and 1906 ) Yes, your family could order their deceased loved one’s tombstone from Sears. They could even pick out the appropriate sentiment to be etched on the stone.
Oh, and just so you know, Montgomery Wards also sold tombstones.
Once you find the catalog of interest you can search or browse it page by page. I would recommend finding the section you are interested in and then studying each page. Also, keep in mind that you might find catalogs on Internet Archive outside of the official Catalog collection. So make sure to conduct searches on their eBooks and Text collection as well.
Have you solved a family history question using a catalog? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.
 “A Visual History of the Category,” Publitas (https://www.publitas.com/blog/a-visual-history-of-the-catalog/#:~:text=The%20first%20Montgomery%20Ward%20catalog,on%20the%20catalog%20mailing%20list.: accessed 13 November 2020).
 Special thanks to Cathy Martin Naborowski who posted about Sears Wallpaper Catalogs on Internet Archive.